How do we know whether our bones are healthy or not? We can’t see them like
we can our skin, or listen to them like the heart or lungs. Bone density scans are
one way to look inside bone, but we rarely get a bone density test until after menopause
and even so, bone mineral density technology has a long way to go in my opinion.
As a medical anthropologist, I’m always wondering what Nature can tell us
about our health. And it turns out, there are many outward signs and symptoms that
may shed light on the health of your bones.
I refer to these signs and symptoms as “tips” from Nature. They certainly
aren’t definitive or anything to scare you into thoughts of osteoporosis,
but if you’re the type of person who’s planning to be active and strong
well into old age like I am, it doesn’t hurt to assess your bones from the
Let’s take a look at some signs and symptoms that may be indicators of early
bone loss. Investigating these tips early on may save you from unwanted treatment
or therapy down the line and offer you the freedom of strength and movement for
the rest of your life.
Receding gums. Receding gums are quite common and can
be attributed to a variety of factors, one of which is bone loss. Our teeth are
connected to the jaw bone and if the jaw is losing bone, gums can recede. In studies
of women, jaw bone loss has also been associated with lower bone mineral density
in areas such as the vertebral bodies of the lumbar spine. The standard panoramic
x-rays during your visits to the dentist can provide a well-informed dentist with
an opportunity to screen you for bone loss. So ask your dentist to share any information
and insight he or she may glean from your exam and x-rays regarding your bone health.
Decreased grip strength. As we grow older, one of the
surest ways to keep the risk
of fracture to a minimum is through
fall prevention — and for that, good balance, overall muscle strength,
and grip strength are fundamental. In a recent study of postmenopausal women, handgrip
strength was the most important physical test factor related to overall bone mineral
density. And fortunately, improving handgrip strength and overall muscle strength
is within your reach, no matter what your age. For more information on increasing
muscle strength, see my article on exercise and bone health.
Weak and brittle fingernails. At the Center for Better
Bones, I often observe that after women start a program for better bone health,
their fingernails grow stronger and healthier right along with their bones. We always
consider it a good sign when nail strength improves, and recent science suggests
this nail-bone health observation is indeed valid. However, spending time in water,
exposed to harsh chemicals, digging in the garden, or other work can be tough on
your nails, so take these into consideration as you assess your own nails.
Low vitamin D is easy to correct
For most people, vitamin D deficiency is neither difficult nor costly to diagnose
and correct. Have your own levels
tested twice yearly with the change of seasons, and supplement accordingly.
This simple, low-cost practice will go a long way towards halting unnecessary bone
Cramps, muscle aches, and bone pain. As we get older,
many of us accept aches and pains as a part of life, but these symptoms may indicate
that your bones are in need of some support. Muscle and bone pain is an often overlooked,
but well-documented symptom of severely inadequate vitamin D — an important
bone builder. According to experts, vitamin D deficiency has reached alarming proportions,
and researchers worldwide have been evaluating its association with muscle pain.
Cramps are another symptom to pay attention to. There can be a number of mechanisms
causing leg and foot cramps, but leg cramps that occur at night are often a signal
that your calcium, magnesium, and/or potassium blood levels have dropped too low
during the night, when you are not consuming food. If this situation were to persist
over time, excessive bone loss could occur. At the Center for Better Bones, I recommend
that women experiencing nocturnal calf and foot cramps take their calcium–magnesium
supplements closer to bedtime.
Height loss. Losing height is very common as we age and
there are many precursors to it, including poor posture and vertebral fractures.
Poor posture may not mean you have bone loss, but it can indicate weakening of the
muscles around your spine, and since bone and muscle work in one unit and typically
gain and lose strength in synchrony, it’s likely that a loss in muscle is
connected to an eventual loss in bone.
Want to know if you’re losing bone?
Try testing your pH. If your first-morning
urine pH (after at least 6 hours of sleep without getting up to urinate) is below
6.5, or, if your first-morning saliva pH is below 7.0, your bone alkali
mineral reserves are likely being drawn out of your skeleton to buffer metabolic
Following the 10 steps outlined in our Alkaline
for Life Diet can help you rebuild your bone’s alkali mineral reserves
and maintain your optimum pH balance without depleting your bone mass.
Spinal fractures are another reason we lose height. An estimated two-thirds of all
spinal fractures happen without us knowing they’ve occurred — and therefore
they go unreported. Yet, having even such a silent vertebral fracture indicates
bone weakening, and may increase your risk of future fractures. So keep those muscles
in the back strong!
Low overall fitness. Osteoporosis has been linked to overall
decline in physical fitness, as measured by aerobic capacity, muscle strength, and
even balance. If your general fitness declines, it is likely that bone mass will
also decline. Instead of feeling scared or worried by these changes, take the opportunity
to put more attention on your personal health and longevity by taking care your
bones. Even women who have been sedentary their whole lives can make significant
gains, including better physical coordination, when they undertake a moderate, self-paced
exercise program designed for their needs. And even people in their 80’s and
90’s have the ability to adapt and respond to both endurance and strength
training. For ideas, read my article on
exercise and bone health.
Call me biased, but I think strong bones are the fountain of youth. If your bones
are healthy and strong, it’s likely your muscles are too, and it’s also
likely you have a great reserve of minerals tucked away for the future. Strong bones
mean you have the ability to be active and even flexible into your older years.
You don’t have anything to lose by taking good care of your bones —
and you have everything down to the bone to gain.